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Brazil vs. Germany Was a Case of Religion Vs. Science (and Religion Lost)

In Brazil, soccer is a religion. In Germany, it's a science. Guess which prevailed this week.
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Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Before Brazil and Germany even stepped out onto the pitch to play their now-legendary World Cup semi-final match on Tuesday, it was almost impossible to talk about the two teams without resorting to obvious clichés. Brazil was always the club that played gorgeous, joyful soccer, with the movements of its players more resembling an otherworldly dance than something as artless as simple goal-oriented mechanics. The German game, on the other hand, was about focus, precision and ruthless efficiency, relying on a team that functioned as a staggeringly cohesive unit and which possessed the killer instincts of a great white. These two teams perfectly reflected the nations from which they came, turning that historic match-up into a true clash of cultures. And we all saw which culture utterly dominated this time.

There's a good piece running over at Slate right now that carefully and thoroughly dissects why Brazil not only lost on Tuesday but suffered such a demoralizing public humiliation that some are melodramatically calling the defeat Brazil's 9/11. The essay examines how Brazil fell victim to romantic but ultimately ineffectual notions like passion, desire and nationalistic faith. The Brazilian team relied more on its rich soccer heritage and the frenzy of the home crowd, whose hopes and dreams it mistook for destiny, than on actual planning and preparation. The Germans, meanwhile, learned from their failures in Euro 2000 and took the necessary steps to ensure they made their team better. The result: Germany was ready for anything on Tuesday; Brazil wasn't, particularly not for the Germans, all because the team had allowed itself to rest on its reputation.

Here's how Slate's Ken Early sums up the problem with the Brazilians:

They hoped that if they screwed their eyes shut and wanted it enough they would prevail. Through a collective effort of will they almost managed to transform forlorn hope into real belief. On Tuesday night, the land of magical thinking received a bracing communiqué from the reality-based community in the form of seven German goals. A fevered dream isn’t enough. You need a vision.

If this sounds like the kind of thing that can be applied not simply to the realm of World Cup soccer, let's put it in slightly different terms: In Brazil, soccer is a religion. In Germany, it's a science.

Faith-based religion is "magical thinking" at its most profound, an unshakable and irrational insistence that all will turn out okay as long as you believe hard enough and that proven fact is something that can be disregarded if it's inconvenient. It's abandoning logic and surrendering yourself to a belief for which there's no proof, only a lot of wishes and prayers. It's irresponsible and unhealthy and can be your undoing whether you're an average person or a soccer team assuming everything is in the hands of a fate that's on your side.

There's nothing wrong with hoping for the best, but it almost goes without saying that you have to also plan for the worst -- or at the very least create a concrete plan for making sure the worst doesn't happen. To not do so -- to abandon the very reasonable possibility that things might not go your way -- is a recipe for not only failure but embarrassment. We've seen this in politics, where articles of faith can be repeated so often that True Believers become unable to distinguish them from fact. They keep right on buying into the illusion, only for that "bracing communiqué form the reality-based community" to come along and completely upend their blind confidence. Faith may be a comforting and reassuring concept but one thing it's not is a plan. It doesn't replace the need for a concrete method of action and it can be damaging when it essentially lies to you and lulls you into a false sense of security. If you want to believe you'll succeed, fine, but you won't actually succeed unless you work toward backing up that belief.

The Brazilians learned that the hard way. Faith failed them. That's because faith, by itself, is worthless.